The importance of the battle fought at Manassas, Va. on July 21, 1861 cannot be over-emphasized.Two amateur armies – with the South’s better led and the North’s better equipped – fought a daylong battle across the rolling terrain that borders the Warrenton Pike north of Manassas. The amateur soldiers fought in stifling heat and humidity.
Any Mainer who has visited Washington, D.C. in midsummer can appreciate such Southern warmth.
The battle occurred here, about 25 miles west of Washington, D.C., because Confederate troops guarded Manassas Junction, where the rickety Manassas Gap Railroad connected with the mainline Orange & Alexandria Railroad. The junction was a key supply center for the Confederates; northern Virginia’s wretched roads, liable to liquefy in a steady rain, barred effective troop supply by horse- or ox-drawn wagons.
Pro-Union newspapers clamored for President Abraham Lincoln to send the army gathering around Washington to thrash the upstart Confederates digging in along a meandering stream called Bull Run. Called the Army of Northeastern Virginia, that hodgepodge assembly of “green” militia regiments was commanded by Brigadier General Irvin McDowell. He would become the first “unlucky” general to lead what was later named the Army of the Potomac.
McDowell knew his troops were ill-trained and, except for scattered Mexican War or Indian War veterans, not combat-experienced. Many militia regiments had enlisted for 90 days; with such enlistments expiring en masse by late July, McDowell also knew that much of his army would vanish in the Virginia haze without firing a shot.
He resisted media and political pressure to march against the Confederates, but we all know what happened next. Told “go” by President Abraham Lincoln, McDowell went.
With him went at least four Maine infantry regiments: the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th. The last three we will meet soon; their brigade commander, Colonel Oliver Otis Howard, wrote in his autobiography about the disaster that befell his troops on Chinn Ridge late in the battle.
The 2nd Maine boys fought earlier that afternoon. They crossed Bull Run near the Stone Bridge, the place where a well-placed Confederate cannonball later blocked the Union retreat and initiated a wholesale rout all the way to the doors of Washington.
To find where the 2nd Maine fought that day, visitors to Manassas National Battlefield Park should park at the visitors’ center — among the most quaint on all Civil War battlefields — and get a map and directions to the Robinson House. Only the foundation walls remain; walk around them at a distance, and you walk where Maine boys charged into glory almost 151 years ago.
Manassas National Battlefield Park is worth a full day’s visit. Two bloody battles took place amidst the tree-lined hills: the original Manassas (or Bull Run) in July 1861 and Second Manassas (another whopper of a Union defeat) in August 1862.
The rest of this post is my July 2011 Maine at War column, which details the 2nd Maine’s movement across the battlefield.
A beautiful flag attracts bullets, as William Jones Deane learned on Sunday, July 21, 1861.
The previous evening, Col. Charles Jameson had ordered the 2nd Maine Infantry Regiment “drawn up in a hollow square” near Centerville, Va., wrote James Mundy in “Second to None.” Color Sgt. William Deane stood with the six-man color guard assigned to carry the national and regimental flags. As Jameson rode his horse into the square, Deane and his comrades likely wondered what their commander intended.
After all, the 2nd Maine boys would fight a battle tomorrow, if Union Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell could convince his divisional commanders to cross Bull Run and attack Confederate troops defending Manassas, Va.
Jameson quickly explained to his hot, weary soldiers that wealthy Maine women living in San Francisco had spent $1,200 on a battle flag intended for the first Maine regiment to reach Washington. The 2nd Maine Infantry had claimed that honor by detraining at Washington on May 30, just 16 days after leaving Maine. Now, on July 20, the regiment would claim the so-called “California Flag.”
An officer summoned Deane to strap about his upper body a leather harness studded with 13 silver stars. Then Jameson presented Deane with the flag.
And what a flag it was! “On a massive blue field of India silk were thirty-four stars grouped around an eagle. On the reverse were the coats of arms of California and Maine on separate shields. The rings, slides, sockets, and battleaxe were of solid silver,” Mundy wrote. Deane seated the flag shaft’s butt in the harness and listened as his comrades cheered.
Perhaps he thought, “If only they could see me back home,” specifically 6 State Street Ave. in Bangor, where he lived with his wife and children. Born in Thomaston on Dec. 16, 1826, Deane later moved to Bangor with his parents Elizabeth and Benjamin, a prominent architect. William Deane worked as a “moulder,” making molds for castings, and along with his brother, James, belonged to the Bangor Light Infantry.
That militia outfit became Co. A of the 2nd Maine Infantry in mid-spring 1861.
Jameson brought the 10-company regiment to McDowell’s army and an assignment with the 1st Division’s 1st Brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. Erasmus Keyes. Three Connecticut infantry regiments – the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd – and an artillery battery rounded out the 1st Brigade.
Marching west along the Warrenton Pike before dawn on Sunday, July 21, the 1st Division halted near the Stone Bridge and made sufficient noise to distract Confederate attention from the other Union divisions angling northwest to cross Bull Run upstream. Clad in wool uniforms, Deane and the other 2nd Maine boys sweated beneath the broiling Virginia sun and listened as the battle raged in the distance.
Then the 1st Division’s commander, Brig. Gen. Daniel Tyler, ordered two brigades to cross Bull Run at Farm Ford. One brigade joined Union troops embroiled in merciless close-quarter fighting about a mile away; Tyler, however, ordered the 1st Brigade “to take a battery on a height (Henry House Hill) in front,” Keyes wrote in his after-action report. “The battery was strongly posted and supported by infantry and riflemen, sheltered by a building, a fence, and a hedge.”
After forming on high ground west of Bull Run, the 1st Brigade soldiers “were ordered [south] at the double-quick down the gentle slopes and across Young’s Branch” to the Warrenton Pike, Mundy wrote. Carrying the heavy, leather-cased California Flag, William Deane probably gasped for air as the Maine boys reached the road.
There, Keyes anchored the 3rd Connecticut’s right flank near a dirt road rising south to a frame house owned by James Robinson, a 62-year-old free black farmer. Jameson aligned his 2nd Maine on the 3rd Connecticut’s left flank.
“In the center of the [2nd Maine] line was C Company,” assigned that day to protect the color guard, according to Mundy. The flag bearers uncased their flags; at approximately 1:30 p.m., both regiments advanced uphill with the other two Connecticut regiments behind them.
“My order to charge was obeyed with the utmost promptness,” Keyes reported. The 2nd Maine and 3rd Connecticut “pressed forward … up the base of the slope about one hundred yards, when I ordered them to lie down, at a point offering a small protection, and load.”
But the flag bearers did not “lie down,” because their flags must not touch the ground. Deane could only wipe the sweat from his brow and swallow his fear as the two regiments essentially charged “blind” onto Henry House Hill.
Awaiting them was the 5th Virginia Infantry Regiment, led by Col. Kenton Harper and assigned to a brigade brought from the Shenandoah Valley by Col. Thomas J. Jackson. He would gain the nickname “Stonewall” today.
Rising from the sheltering swale and led by Deane and the other two flag bearers, the 2nd Maine boys swept south past the Robinson House “in the face of a movable battery of eight pieces and a large body of infantry, toward the top of the hill,” Keyes recalled. Past the crest, the Maine boys reached a split-rail fence that disrupted their advance.
Squinting through the haze, Col. Harper spotted an American flag and yelled at his men. “They fired a volley that rocked the 2nd Maine,” Mundy wrote. “The men stood it and returned a volley with their smoothbores.”
Deane’s last moments coincided with that first Confederate volley. The 2nd Maine’s three flags attracted Confederate bullets; shot in the throat, William Deane “fell severely wounded while nobly bearing the beautiful California stand of colors,” Jameson noted.
“Though sorely wounded so that he could scarcely whisper, he beckoned me to him – and when I knelt beside him and put my ear close to his mouth, he hoarsely whispered, “It’s safe,”’ recalled Rev. John F. Mines, the 2nd Maine chaplain.
“What,” said I, “what, the flag?’ He nodded his head, for he could not speak again – and then closed his eyes” in death, Mines recalled. “That man was a hero.”
Snatching up the blood-splattered California Flag, Corp. Americus Moore of Old Town yelled at his comrades to advance. Then Moore took a bullet in the head and died, the California Flag fell again, and the Maine boys sought cover behind the fence.
Keyes ordered his regiments to retreat. As the 2nd Maine withdrew, Corp. Benjamin Smart of Portland refused to abandon the fallen flags. Jameson led nine volunteers, including Smart, across the fence to retrieve the flags and some wounded Mainers. Although under heavy enemy fire, the rescuers emerged unscathed with their flags and comrades.
“The colors were lost, but regained,” Jameson succinctly reported.
Chaplain Mines remained with 25 wounded Mainers left behind as the 2nd Maine vanished past the Robinson House. Confederates captured him; imprisoned in Richmond, he later wrote in a letter to a Bangor friend, “Tell Mr. Deane, the father of Wm. Deane … who fell in the battle of the 21st, that his son died like a hero. His father may weep bitterly for his loss – but let him thank God for his glorious death.”
Brian Swartz can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.